No greater authority on digital transformation than the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu advises us that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” What’s missing from the proverb is how big those steps are in the transformation journey.

At the risk of going deep into business Zen, an important corollary to Lao Tzu is the Japanese philosophy of kaizen, quite literally translating to “improvement through baby steps.”

For impatient digital disruptors, the whole notion of baby steps conjures up the notion of the glacial change they loathe. As one who thrives on organized chaos, I’ve tended to fall into that “taking giant steps” category, to the dismay of many of my colleagues and enterprise leadership.

But as I started to better understand the business philosophy of kaizen, I started to realize that, in many enterprises, the notion of continuous small changes might make more sense than larger, more revolutionary changes.

The genesis of kaizen goes back to auto manufacturing, where continuous small changes (baby steps) are better accepted by consumers in that marketplace than massive changes in design and features. The most important aspect is that the requirement for baby-step change is baked into the corporate culture. While massive changes may not be required, stagnation and complacency are not at all an option.

In many industries such as information technology or healthcare, where product generations are much more compacted, what occurs in a baby step might be much more profound than what we would find in a more traditional or staid business sector. In other words, what might be viewed as complacency by IT folks would in another industry be viewed as total transformation.

I was interested to hear a recent panel of healthcare provider chief information officers (CIOs) discuss the topic of implementing telemedicine strategies. The premise of the panel was to discuss whether these remote-care deployments are revolutionary or evolutionary. One of the CIOs of a major urban hospital told the audience that the fact they started to implement telemedicine in their organization was in and of itself revolutionary, despite the fact that the technology they deployed was essentially equivalent to having patients contact their doctors via FaceTime.

Because of organizational challenges and insurance reimbursement limitations, the giant step was mostly related to having a very basic telemedicine “street cred.” The baby steps of making that functionality more sophisticated from a data capture and patient experience perspective would become Phase 2.

In many of my business experiences, the resistance to baby steps is a marketing issue. Sales and marketing feel that incremental change is not enough to reflect competitive advantage in fast-paced industries.

In this regard, it’s important to note that client-facing colleagues have much less tolerance for incremental improvements that simply mirror the market leader. I’ve written previously that mimicking the market leader only creates the illusion of innovation, as compared to something truly new in the marketplace.

Kaizen would probably differentiate between just keeping step versus continuously stepping ahead, albeit in smaller increments.

So how do impatient disruptive change agents adapt to a kaizen transformation model?

They learn to identify areas in the business where a relatively small change to a product or process could be perceived in the market (or internally) as somewhat groundbreaking. These baby steps are sometimes best unearthed by speaking with the help desk or customer services department, where suggestions of “if you could just tweak your product/service to do X” come up frequently.

Finally, and perhaps most important, while change agents might embrace the incremental approach, they also differentiate the challenges small steps can create that would be better served by a major overhaul. Many CIOs know the pain and anguish of trying to make legacy systems more competitive by tweaking them in ways for which they were never designed.

 

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